Friday, 21 November 2008

I'll impact you!

A search of Google News shows that in the last 24 hours there have been almost 800 articles with the phrase "impacted on." That means almost 800 news stories in one day alone have gone out of their way to irritate me.

That's a lot of irritation. And that's not counting other uses of the word "impact" as a verb, such as "will impact" (almost 5,000) and "have impacted" (almost 800).

I know, I know. There is nothing grammatically wrong with using "impact" as a verb. The American Heritage Dictionary takes great pains to point this out, noting that "[i]mpact has been used as a verb since 1601, when it meant 'to fix or pack in,' and its modern, figurative use dates from 1935." Of course, the 1601 use had a very distinct meaning and should any of these news reports be talking about dentistry or meteor strikes I'll let it go by. But they're not. Here are a few examples:
  • "... and also impacted on the work of Otis Redding"
  • "Sustainability also impacted on shoppers' choices..."
  • "This in turn has impacted on the spending power, ..."
  • "The results are also impacted on translation into euros at a significantly weaker rand rate"
This is nothing but bad writing with an over-inflated ego. Every sentence here would be improved simply by using "affected" instead of "impacted on."
  • "... and also affected the work of Otis Redding"
  • "Sustainability also affected shoppers' choices..."
  • "This in turn has affected the spending power, ..."
  • "The results affect translation into euros at a significantly weaker rand rate"
In this way, while it may not improve the writing, it at least rids it of insufferable pretentiousness. Even better, however, is to use verbs which help articulate the idea being put forth whenever possible:
  • "... and also shaped the work of Otis Redding"
  • "Sustainability also dictates shoppers' choices..."
  • "This in turn has undermined the spending power, ..."
And in the fourth example, both "affect" and "impact on" are merely useless add-ons and can be removed altogether:
  • "The results also translate into euros at a significantly weaker rand rate"
The AHD seems puzzled, almost insulted, by the fact that so many of us find this usage objectionable. "It is unclear," it says, "why this usage provokes such a strong response, but it cannot be because of novelty." But just because something has been around for 70 years, or even 400 years doesn't mean it can't be "novel." Perhaps the figurative use has been around since 1935, but it wasn't a part of every damned sentence out of speakers' mouths nor did it make its way into 800 newspaper stories every single day!

Regardless of the history they attempt to put forth for this usage, the AHD is forced to admit that even their own Usage Panel detests it. "Eighty-four percent of the Usage Panel," it says, "disapproves of the construction 'to impact on,' as in the phrase 'social pathologies, common to the inner city, that impact heavily on such a community;' fully 95 percent disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb in the sentence 'Companies have used disposable techniques that have a potential for impacting our health.'" Despite this almost unanimous condemnation, the dictionary still makes the prediction that because "the verbal use of impact has become so common in the working language of corporations and institutions" that "the verb will eventually become as unobjectionable as contact is now, since it will no longer betray any particular pretentiousness on the part of those who use it."

Well, they may be right. But there are a growing number of seminars, tutorials, books and websites urging speakers and writers to drop the use of the verbal "impact" in order to make their communications clearer and more understandable. A couple of decades ago it looked like the word "irregardless" was going to become an accepted part of English, but a million voices raised in condemnation relegated the bastard word to its rightful place as a marker of ignorance and illiteracy. Although "impact" may technically be a verb, its common (and unbearably constant) use can similarly be stopped if enough of us follow two simple rules:
  1. Stop using it ourselves, and
  2. Throw rotten vegetables at anyone else who uses it.
I'd suggest three-week-old tomatoes. They impact nicely.